The best time to think about getting out of a business lease is before you sign it. For the many companies with leases signed, perhaps too casually, before the economy tanked, that's little help. While their numbers are down from recent highs, businesses still come to my law firm looking for the magic bullet out of their leases. (Spoiler alert: there is no magic bullet.)
A lease is the most common, yet least understood, contract a human-owned business will sign, so a post on exit planning for leases is going to be helpful whether you are trying to get out of or in to a lease. Exit planning, by the way, isn't limited to just the owner's exit from the business. How key relationships, including the one with your landlord, end is a subject deserving forethought in any business.
I blame professional sports for the unrealistic expectations some businesses have toward contacts, including leases. If you regularly hear about the rising star athlete who gets out of the contract signed when he or she was a bit more humble, you might get the impression that your business can get out of a contract whenever a better offer comes your way.
That your business is suffering, or rent is lower across the street (or even in your building), is generally of no concern to your landlord -- other than at renewal time. Supposing the landlord is willing to do something for you, chances are the landlord has its own contract it can't get out of -- a mortgage. Your lease is part of their collateral, so the landlord's lender has much less interest in helping you out of the lease, than in helping you in.
If your business is viable, any change in your lease has to present some upside to both landlord and lender. Personal guarantees, commonly required in leases to human-owned businesses, give the landlord and lender still less reason to make a deal, even if your business is struggling. There are, however, still some options, though they are MUCH better discussed before the lease is signed.
The typical lease gives the landlord the right to collect, upon a default of the lease, from your business (or you, if you are a guarantor) an amount equal to the sum of any past due rents plus all future rents for the remaining term, discounted to present value. If the landlord can re-let the space, the former tenant gets a credit for the rent paid, less the landlord's costs -- such as brokerage commissions and improvements to the space required for a new tenant. Thus, what you owe on default of your lease can be a huge number. But it doesn't have to be.
When negotiating the lease, cap on your default liability in the form of a buyout -- a fixed sum you pay to get out of the deal. If you can't limit the business's exposure, try to limit the terms of any personal guarantee. If you didn't get a buyout in the lease, asking the landlord for a buyout now is asking them to weigh the bird in the hand against those in the bush. Depending on your financial circumstances and the market, trading your lease for cash in-hand, or even a little cash and a secured promissory note, might be a viable option for landlord and lender.
In Part 2, I'll cover three more options for getting out of a lease: Assignments & Subleases, Landlord Take Backs, and Extending the Term.